In the mid-seventeenth century, Japan was experiencing early forms of globalization. Westerners, mostly Christian missionaries, flooded the country in an attempt to spread their culture and religion to the people of Japan. The Japanese government feared the conversion of its people, and enacted a policy of isolationism, called “Sakoku”, expelling all Westerners from the country. The period of Sakoku lasted over two hundred years, well into the nineteenth century, and apart from limited contact with the Chinese and the Dutch, Japan was successful in remaining sealed off from the world.
Such isolationism might have been possible a few hundred years ago, but is it possible anymore? As our world becomes increasingly more connected through technology and new forms of communication, can the world support another Japan?
I’ve been thinking about this ever since we started the Comparative Politics section of class this year by talking about globalization.
This graph, showing numbers of international tourists, shows a steady increase in international travel from 1970 – 2004, and a sharp rise in tourism from 2004 – 2008. What it tells us is that the number of people traveling to other countries and inevitably sharing cultures and ideas, is growing dramatically. And travel isn’t the only way people are communicating. In 2009, during the uprising in Iran, the Iranian government tried and failed to keep its people from contacting the outside world. While a goal like that might have been possible during the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries in Japan, it became much harder to enact in the twenty-first century. New technology of the Internet (most notably, twitter), gave people a way to go around their government and connect with others on an international scale. Even though western missionaries of the seventeenth century were able to utilize the technology of their time to travel around the world, they were still limited by physical borders. In the twenty-first century, with faster travel and new connections, those physical borders are much less intractable.
Even modern-day North Korea, a would-be Japan-style isolationist country, is unable to be free of globalization. Despite having a government that controls its people’s information and actions, foreign culture is able to permeate its borders. The new dictator, Kim Jong Un, is a fan of the western sport basketball, and recently invited American basketball player Dennis Rodman to visit him in North Korea. At first, the trip might seem arbitrary and laughable, but in a way, it’s indicative of the growing, international force of globalization.
I’m still not yet sure what I think about globalization. In a lot of ways, it can be a positive force, bringing people together across geographic and language barriers. Even though Rodman’s trip to North Korea didn’t seem to help destabilize the regime all that much, maybe it opens the door to future communications between our countries. But globalization can be a detriment as well; in its period of Sakoku, Japan was able to create and preserve its own unique culture largely uninfluenced by outside forces. The United Nations estimates that by the end of the century, half of the 6,000 languages spoken in the world today will have gone extinct. As our borders grow weaker and cultures merge, are we losing something valuable, or gaining it?